Steve Atwater’s journey to the Pro Football Hall of Fame began with long rides and short walks, well before starring at Arkansas, joining the Broncos, delivering a legendary hit on Kansas City running back Christian Okoye, earning the still-fabulous nickname of “The Smiling Assassin,” making eight Pro Bowls and winning two Super Bowl rings.
Walk 200 yards from his house. Board the bus on West Florissant Avenue. Get off at Lucas & Hunt Road. And walk up the street to Lutheran North High School in St. Louis.
“It seemed like it was 50 miles back then,” Atwater said during an interview with The Denver Post . “But it was 6-7 miles.”
Six or seven miles but a world away from the environment he was growing up in. It was a new experience that helped create the foundation for a professional career that will culminate with his induction in Canton, Ohio.
Instead of attending a “rough” public high school, Atwater enrolled at a private school that opened his view to the world. There were students of different races, backgrounds and financial means.
At Lutheran North, Atwater shined in football, leading him to Arkansas, where he paved the path to join the Broncos and become one of the NFL’s top safeties in the 1990s. He’s still one of the franchise’s most popular players, just as much for his play (a big man who delivered big hits and made big plays) as his personality (thunderous laugh, shakes every hand, signs every autograph, takes every picture).
It all started with those bus rides and walks.
“He is so deserving,” said Charlie Waters, Atwater’s first defensive backs coach with the Broncos. “He does everything right. He never disappoints.”
Atwater started playing football at age 8 for the Royal Knights as an offensive lineman who moved to quarterback when the coaches wanted a downfield pass. As he moved closer to high school, he became a full-time quarterback, wearing the blue-and-gold jersey No. 12.
Atwater and his father, Jeff, attended a Lutheran North basketball game and Jeff asked Steve if he was interested in attending the school north of downtown instead of their neighborhood public school, which he said, “I knew wasn’t for me.”
“I remember walking up an alley and seeing a guy with a shotgun in another guy’s mouth and the guy is saying, ‘Please, please, please, don’t shoot!’ and I heard some gunshots down the street (another time) and I ran down there and there was this guy on the ground, shot, before the police got there,” he said. “My experience in St. Louis had been that you had some groups of people who didn’t have everything and I was in that group.”
Atwater earned a discounted tuition the summer before his freshman year by taking a class about Martin Luther King Jr. He played football and basketball at Lutheran North.
“The whole experience was just amazing,” he said. “I would spend time at the houses of friends and think, ‘Man, this is kind of nice, seeing a family together and seeing people able to live comfortably, but not extravagant and not worrying about where the next meal was going to come from.’”
Atwater said the demographic of Lutheran North was split evenly between Black and white students. “That prepared me for the rest of my life, just being able to communicate not only with Black people, but with white people and have mutual respect and understand that not all white people are rich and not all Black people are poor.”
Atwater’s mentor was his high school football coach Mike Russell.
“He was very kind,” Atwater said. “Seeing him interact with all of the athletes and the way he treated me, it reinforced that there are great people no matter their skin color.”
College basketball coaches inquired about Atwater, but he wanted to stay with football. Missouri was in a down cycle so he crossed them off his list. He also wanted to leave the St. Louis area. He was sold on Arkansas following a home visit by Jesse Branch and a follow-up trip to Fayetteville.
“The perfect fit,” Atwater said. “Wasn’t too far from home, but not close enough where I would be on the highway going home every weekend.”
Trainer put NFL on radar
Atwater redshirted at Arkansas in 1984 and played a reserve role in ’85. Once Atwater became the starter, he took off — years of 72, 67 and 70 tackles and four interceptions each season.
“When it was his turn, he took advantage,” said Bob Trott, Atwater’s position coach at Arkansas. “He wasn’t really a box safety. He played downfield and could support on the run and play the pass. He was a little unusual because most defensive backs weren’t that tall (6-foot-4).”
Hard to believe for Broncos fans, but Atwater wasn’t a sure tackler early in his college career.
“I used to get on him because he tackled way too high and he broke his collarbone,” Trott said. “He finally learned to use his shoulder pads. There was one day in practice, he hit a running back on a pitch and the guy must have been in the air for six yards. A guy that big, when he learned to hit with his shoulders, could be pretty devastating.”
Early in Atwater’s career, Razorbacks coach Ken Hatfield, who is expected to attend Saturday’s ceremony, asked the players to write down their post-college goals. Atwater wanted to be drafted.
Looking back, he said: “I can’t believe I wrote that because in my mind, I didn’t think about the NFL.”
That changed during a junior year visit to the office of trainer Dean Weber. Atwater said his hands “were banged up and all bent up and bleeding and I said, ‘Dean, my hands, what can I do?’”
Weber provided an answer that changed Atwater’s outlook and his life.
“Those hands are going to make you a lot of money,” Weber said.
Decades later, Atwater said: “That’s when it started to become real for me. At that point, I got super locked in.”
No parties. Extra workouts. A lifting program designed by John Stucky that strengthened Atwater’s shoulders. All football. As a senior in 1988, he was a first-team All-Southwest Conference selection.
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Atwater played in the East-West Shrine Game and met with Mike Hagan and Ron Hill of the Broncos’ personnel department, who later timed Atwater at 4.47 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Aside from a combine meeting with Waters, he didn’t hear from the Broncos again until draft weekend.
“Never let you down”
The 1989 draft was split into two days — rounds 1-5 on Sunday and 6-12 on Monday. Atwater’s hope was to be selected on the first day. One NFL coach perplexed Trott upon his arrival at Arkansas.
“I set him up with the tape and he said, ‘I hear he won’t hit very hard,’ and I said, ‘Obviously, you haven’t watched the tape, have you?’” Trott said, laughing 32 years later. “I still remember thinking, ‘Who the hell told him that?’”
What the tape told Waters was Atwater checked every possible criteria to help the Broncos.
“I got up on the soap-box and said, ‘If you pass on this guy, you’re going to rue the day. He’s really special,’” Waters said.
Atwater was selected 20th overall, receiving a call from general manager John Beake and coach Dan Reeves on April 23, 1989. Suddenly, Atwater, who grew up watching the Cowboys on television, was being tutored by Waters, who played 12 years at safety for Dallas.
“The things he would say to me, I wouldn’t question,” Atwater said.
Said Waters: “It was like a coaching dream to have somebody who was a sponge — everything I said, he listened to and paid attention to and you love players like that. He played every game at such a high level. He was physically more dominant and nobody could block him and nobody could out-run him. We gave him a lot of responsibility and he took it on.”
Atwater was an immediate starter and immediate contributor — 129 tackles and three interceptions as a rookie. He was a Pro Bowl player by Year 2 and All-Pro by Year 3.
“An all-around player — in the run, in the pass, how his teammates loved him and how he contributed,” said current Broncos defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, the team’s secondary coach from 1995-99.
Four of the top five picks in the ’89 draft are in the Hall of Fame: Aikman (No. 1) and Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas and Deion Sanders (Nos. 3-5). But from Nos. 6-335, Atwater has the only gold jacket. Sitting in his office adorned with pictures of his playing days, Atwater is presented the list of Class of ’89 Hall of Famers.
“Wow!” he said. “I always look back and see draft picks who were supposed to do monumental things, but their careers didn’t work out for whatever reason. I was one of those lucky to come into this (Broncos) environment.”
Lucky and fortunate? Sure. But Atwater also had the freakish athleticism and the work ethic and want-to engrained on those long bus rides and short walks in St. Louis.
“I keep saying it — he never let you down,” Waters said. “He’s who you would want your son to be.”